going independent

Tim Heidecker Takes On Cinema Straight to the People

TIm Heidecker as “Tim Heidecker.” Photo: Tim Heidecker/YouTube

As it did with nearly everything else, the pandemic pumped the brakes on On Cinema, Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s long-running film-review podcast turned TV show turned multimedia franchise. But even after a 2020 spent in quarantine, there was yet another hiccup in Heidecker and Turkington’s plans for a comeback: Adult Swim, which housed On Cinema and its associated spinoffs for much of their run on its website, shuttered its streaming and digital-video wing after a wave of layoffs. In response, Heidecker and Turkington launched the HEI Network platform at the end of 2020, an independently run website for all things On Cinema, complete with a subscription service that will grant fans access to (and finance) all future On Cinema outings.

Ahead of The 8th Annual On Cinema Oscar Special on April 25, Heidecker took a break from prepping for, in his words, “a live, three-hour show with the catering budget from SNL” to chat about what it means for him to go independent, what fans can expect moving forward, and what, exactly, went down between him and Adult Swim.

So On Cinema is striking out on its own. Was that something that was in the works for a while, or did Adult Swim shuttering its digital arm force your hand?
I think it’s been on our minds for the last few years. As our ambitions grew for the show, the budgets did not, and it became harder to do the show we wanted to do. And there never seemed to be any leverage there to really say, “We need more.” We kind of limped into it when we used Patreon as a supplemental budget for the last couple of Oscar specials. That worked okay and definitely got us to a place where we could make those basically within the budget, but it was a confusing thing for the audience, because they’re like, “I thought this was an Adult Swim thing — why am I paying for it?” It felt sort of like a charity or something.

So after the last Oscar Special, since that rolled right into the pandemic, there wasn’t really a way to make any more. Adult Swim shut their streaming services down. To be fair, I think we were really a total outlier there, because their usual streaming shows were a green screen and a couple of video-game microphones, and that was their model, and we had a full-fledged show with editing involved and multiple cast members. It was not comparable in scope to everything else they were doing, and it didn’t feel like it was something that they wanted to bump up and do a full-fledged TV show. So I foresaw that we would [produce it ourselves], or we would just stop making it.

And luckily, there was this guy out there, Justin Gaynor, who started as this huge fan, but also became the On Cinema librarian or scholar. He created this website called the On Cinema Timeline, which has every single tweet, every single moment.

It’s so comprehensive.
He’s basically become a partner in the project because he said, “I could build you a site that basically operates like any other streaming site.” And what’s great is that it started dovetailing so nicely with the show because of [my character’s] entrepreneurial tendencies. It always was kind of a little awkward to have Adult Swim or Patreon or these other normal things exist within the On Cinema universe, because these guys don’t operate in that world so much. I don’t love talking about the show out of character. I do like talking to you and that kind of stuff, but asking people for money always felt out of character, and this system feels like it blends nicely in with the story of the show too.

So if given the opportunity to work with Adult Swim or another network again, would you take it? Or do you want to see how far you can take the independent distribution model?
I mean, the creative relationship with Adult Swim was always great, but it’s always come down to money and who can pay for it. With On Cinema, there was never really an understanding of what it was there. There was one Oscar Special — not the last one, but the one before — where I realized they hadn’t tweeted on social media to let anyone know that it was happening. It was the day of, and I wrote, like, “What’s happening? You guys are paying for this. Why don’t you want to let people know?” It was an oversight, but it was sort of like, “You guys don’t seem to really be into this show.” And there’s a world out there that really loves it. I just want to have a partner that’s excited about it and doesn’t feel like it’s a burden or has an obligation to it.

It does feel like this is the perfect project to try and run independently. There’s a great freedom to having a company like Adult Swim say, “Here’s your budget, here’s the money. Don’t worry about that side of it. Just go and make your show.” But there’s also something really fun and exciting about this, you know? I think there’s enough people out there that feel like they’ve been getting a free ride for ten years now with this show, and they feel ownership and are protective of making sure that it continues. And the technology is so easy — well, I don’t want to say “easy,” because I know Justin works hard on it, but anybody can do this. You can build a Netflix if you have an audience that wants to watch your shit.

Obviously, it’s not necessarily viable for people who are just starting out to use a similar model, but do you think that going independent like this is going to become more common among comedians or producers, especially ones who aren’t making TV for a mass audience?
I’m certainly not a pioneer here; I think I should have done this five or ten years ago, you know? It definitely does seem to be a viable way if you look at, like, what Red Letter Media’s done; they do the Half in the Bag show. Chapo Trap House is like gangbusters. There are alternate models out there, and I think audiences are getting more comfortable having their subscriptions to Patreon or independent things. I would be fairly nervous if I were a development person, because there’s real competition now to not necessarily go in and make a deal where you’re giving up ownership on a lot of stuff. We’re lucky that we just licensed On Cinema to Adult Swim to air it, so we just make this and own it and control its destiny.

Because a lot of the finances are coming from fans, is there a danger of feeling more beholden to making what the fans want to see rather than making the thing you want to make?
I don’t think we’re going to have a problem with that, but I do think they will expect a lot from it. It’s up to us to deliver that. Some people are going to find the value in what we’re giving them, and some people are going to say that it doesn’t make sense. I think, creatively, we’re always going to do what makes us laugh, what’s funny to us, and a lot of times, that’s challenging to the audience.

When we did The Trial, there was a discussion of, “Are these people going to watch five hours of this?” And you know what? They did. Some of the comedy in our work is the ruthlessness of it or the tedium of what Gregg [Turkington] might be doing. So there should be a level of frustration there that’s funny, but we want to always make it funny and not just purely annoying.

But yeah, what we’re talking about is not a charity. It’s not a Kickstarter thing. It’s access to our content and our world, just like the New York Times or anything else. We don’t want to totally exclude everybody from everything, but we feel like the paywall is an incentive to get people to pay for the stuff they want to watch. And I’m not naïve — I think people are gonna figure out a way to watch it no matter what we do, and they’ll always do that. But I don’t think it’s going to affect us creatively. If anything, because we now have a platform and an annual budget that can be divvied in different ways, we can do many shows and specials to the extent that we all have the time and the interest in doing that.

It did feel we were a little beholden to the schedule of Adult Swim and when they were willing to pay for another season, and the gears of that always slowed our process down. For years, the thing that was great about On Cinema was that it was relatively easy for us. It was a fun, light side thing that we did because we would get together and write and then shoot for a day. Then we’d have a season, and we’d get back to doing all of our things. So I want to get to that place, so we just have a pot of money, and we can say Let’s do this, this, this and this, and then it’s out there.

So, Adult Swim shut down its livestreams, and similarly, within the last year, Comedy Central has been canceling its shows left and right. Then your own show, Moonbase 8, took a while to find a home on a network, and you eventually had to self-release your stand-up special last year and — actually, wasn’t Comedy Central one of the places that turned down your special?
Yeah, I heard the note there was that they felt I was making fun of comedy. Well, okay, is that not allowed? I didn’t know there were things you couldn’t make fun of. I guess there are. [Laughs.]

So, with all this mind, do you think it’s tougher now versus five or ten years ago to get a comedy series put on a network, or is it the way it’s always been?
Well, I feel like the comedy I always end up getting involved in feels very niche and alternative. There was a time when there was a bigger market for that, or at least there were people in positions of power that were fans and wanted to try that kind of comedy. There was perhaps more money in general to produce those kinds of things. But I don’t see a lot of that kind of comedy on networks or on cable channels or streaming services anymore. Maybe they’re not successful enough to warrant their budgets, you know? Traditional budgets are, even for cheap shows, really expensive.

So, I don’t know what happened. I think people I know in the biz or other creators and stuff have felt for a while that the gravy train is not quite as full as it was in terms of picking up shows that seem pretty weird or challenging. I can only speak from my own experience. I’m not exactly sure why that is. Things change, you know? Just like with everything else.

I mean, [I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson] is the only thing I can think of. It’s bigger; it does pretty well. But I feel like that’s something that’s still very, very weird and outside the bounds for most people, whereas we would consider it pretty great [and wonder,] Why aren’t there more shows like this?

Do you think streaming might have played a part in that — niche shows with smaller audiences getting splintered even more with all the different services and series out there?
Yeah. Again, only from my own experience, but the vibe I get is, for the streaming companies, they already have my audience. They already have them as subscribers. I don’t know if they need to play to those people anymore, and if they lose them, it’s no big deal. They’re taking big swings at big, broad, popular shows. I know in the past few years, the comedy departments at these places keep turning over. There’s not really a strong voice, necessarily, anymore that’s saying, “This is the kind of comedy we do.” It seems [they’re throwing] stuff up against the wall to see what people are excited about.

Is there anything you feel like you can do now with On Cinema that you couldn’t do under Adult Swim?
I think now that the HEI Network platform exists, we can shoot all kinds of stuff that will have a really solid place to live. I think that probably wasn’t possible before, because you had stuff strewn about social media.

With On Cinema, we’re very specific with what lives in that world and what makes sense. [We now have] a place for ideas that might not make sense in a linear, episodic fashion, but are funny and enhance the world. Like me writing these stupid HEI Network articles — I hope fans of the show think they’re funny and consider them just as funny as anything else. Now we can put out e-books, we can put out music videos or podcasts, any kind of media you can think of will have a place to live. And most of it is fairly affordable to produce, so we’ll have the resources to do it. And the ideas go on forever, so luckily that’s never been a problem.

Now that you have people signed up for a yearly subscription, I imagine fans will expect more regular updates and content throughout the year. Is the plan to move to a more multimedia project on top of the actual show?
I really want to be careful not to overpromise. I also think there’s quality over quantity there, too. There’s things that are daily that are really fun. Like Office Hours — I’d love to do that every day if we had the time and the money, but that’s fun because it’s disposable. It’s a talk show. It’s like, Fuck it. If it’s not a good show, there will be a good show later. But On Cinema is a little more precious to us. We want to make sure they’re good, and that they progress the story in the right way. But I feel like there will be stuff bubbling on that site throughout the year. But we still think for $55 per year, if you get two seasons, an Oscar special, access to the site and other stuff — we’re going to make it feel like you’re getting value.

The big problem, which I realized, is Netflix is, what is it, $12, $15 per month? And there’s hundreds of shows. So it’s hard for the audience to see what we’re doing and say, “Wait, you’re just providing us one show, and it’s not as much as Netflix,” but it breaks down to like $5 per month or something. What those streaming services have done is really devalue what things cost for people. But now that there’s 12 of them, it’s suddenly very expensive to have them all, so it’s made it hard to compete with that, as you can imagine. McDonald’s is going to be cheaper than a really nice artisan cheeseburger. We’re the artisan cheeseburger place in that analogy. [Laughs.]

Is there anything else you want to add about On Cinema, the HEI Network, or anything else?
I don’t want to sound ungrateful about Adult Swim or anything, but it did just get to a place where I felt like, to keep doing the show, this was the only way to do it. And I feel very positive about it; I feel really good about this model. It’s a little scary, a little risky. You launch something, and suddenly everyone wants it, and now you have to deliver it, and it’s a little scary. Just learning how to do all this stuff is a little intimidating. But, like I said, I didn’t come up with this idea. People are doing it, and it sounds like a great way to support things that you love, and we hope it satisfies everyone.

Tim Heidecker Takes On Cinema Straight to the People